Raising the steaks – and greenhouse gases

by Theresa Peluso

CowsI couldn’t abandon my discussion of carbon emissions in Mississippi Mills without considering one very important group of residents. They don’t vote, and they lack the ability to change their behaviour, but they are, in fact, contributing to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In all of Lanark County there are about 21,400 (compared with about 66,000 human residents). These residents are found huddled in herds on the various beef and dairy farms that dot the countryside, emitting methane gas from both ends in the form of burps and farts.

This column is in response to one Millstone respondent’s comment about one of my previous columns, that cattle are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. An article in Animal Feed Science and Technology 166– 167 (2011) 7– 15 titled “The significance of livestock as a contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions today and in the near future” by F.P. O’Mara (Teagasc, Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority: see journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/anifeedsci), states that “Animal agriculture is responsible for 8–10.8% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as assessed by IPCC accounting and, on the basis of lifecycle analysis, the contribution of livestock is up to 18% of global emissions…These emissions are dominated by emissions from cattle.”

Mississippi Mills is home to a lot of cattle (roughly 6,500), and with each cow producing annually about 90 kg of methane (an especially harmful greenhouse gas), it results in about 580,500 kg of methane in Mississippi Mills alone. When you consider that there are about 21,400 cattle in Lanark County (see http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/stats/livestock/ctycattle11.htm (July 2011)), that adds up to a lot of emissions. According to the Lanark Stewardship Council’s 2008 report (A Place in Time: The Natural Resources of Lanark County), there are 790 farms in Lanark County, of which 240 are located in Mississippi Mills. Although not all farms raise cattle, we can generalize that 30 percent of cattle are raised in our municipality, which would mean we have about 6,450 cattle.

The upside of having these farms nearby is that, if most of the beef and dairy products are consumed locally or in the same province, fewer carbon emissions are generated by transportation of these goods. Local jobs are also created. Farming generates huge revenues in our county: Dairy — $10.9 million; Cattle and Calves — $6.2 million, for the year 2006. Total farm receipts for that year were $37 million. (Information taken from Lanark Stewardship Council’s 2008 report, also quoted above.)

In addition to using the manure generated by livestock as bio-friendly fertilizer, farmers can also help to reduce their environmental impact by using the manure and food waste from their livestock and crops to produce natural gas. A biogas system would enable them to heat their houses and barns, and provide electricity, and eliminate the need to purchase fossil fuels, or electricity from the grid. This would also represent a huge cost savings. Although greenhouse gas emissions would be produced when this fuel is burned, no energy would be required to extract the fuel and transport it to the farm. Ideally, becoming vegan would generate much fewer greenhouse gases than one that includes animal-sourced foods, but many people enjoy their meat, milk and cheese far too much to make that choice.

We’re still left with the methane emissions from all those burps and farts. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could bottle that up too, and use it to create energy? An alternative is to try to reduce this gaseous output. According to author James Owen (National Geographic News, August 16, 2005 (California Cows Fail Latest Emissions Test), farmers can increase their profits (more energy diverted to milk and meat production) by modifying the diet of cows, and finding ways to regulate the organic acids in their stomachs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has additional suggestions: improving grazing management; conducting soil tests, followed by adding proper amendments and fertilizers; supplementing cattle diets with needed nutrients; developing a preventive herd health program; providing appropriate water sources and protecting water quality; and improving genetics and reproductive efficiency. As the U.S. EPA points out: “By producing meat and milk with the most efficient U.S. herd possible, the global environment as well as our own economy will benefit. The bottom line – improved livestock management – is good for the environment and makes dollars and sense.”

The Government of Alberta, Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, in its bulletin titled “Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and Range and Pasture Management” (No. 10, Oct. 2003), provides details on how to improve grazing management. Some of these include reducing cultivation on pastureland, planting grass/legume pasture mixes, practising intensive grazing, having cattle “eat to fill” instead of just maintenance levels, and reducing insecticide use.

By raising cattle in a more environmentally sustainable way, we can have our steak and eat it too. Not only will we reduce our carbon footprint in Mississippi Mills, we also stand to gain financially by reducing fuel costs and increasing productivity.